Concert Notes

Romantic Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff
b. Oneg, Russia / March 20, 1873; 
d. Beverly Hills, California, USA / March 28, 1943

In 1897, the disastrous premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony threw his promising career as a composer into disarray. For three agonizing years, he found himself unable to create anything significant. He sought the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a psychoanalyst. As the composer recalled, “My relations had told Dr. Dahl that he must at all costs cure me of my apathetic condition and achieve such results that I would again begin to compose. Dahl asked what manner of composition they desired and had received the answer, ‘a concerto for pianoforte,’ for this I had promised to the people in London and had given it up in despair. Consequently I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in my armchair in Dr. Dahl’s study, ‘You will begin to write your concerto....You will work with great facility....The concerto will be of excellent quality....’ It was always the same, without interruption.

“Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. Already at the start of the summer, I was composing once more. The material accumulated, and new musical ideas began to stir within me – many more than I needed for my concerto. By autumn I had completed two movements (the andante and the finale)....These I played that same season at a charity concert, with gratifying success (December 15, 1900)....By the spring I had finished the first movement (moderato)...and felt that Dr. Dahl’s treatment had strengthened my nervous system to a miraculous degree. Out of gratitude I dedicated my Second Concerto to him.” The full concerto débuted on November 9, 1901. Both performances took place in Moscow, with the composer performing the piano part. His cousin, Aleksandr Ziloti, conducted the second.

The reasons for its enormous popularity are clear. It displays its emotions directly, particularly warmth and melancholy. The themes are attractive and memorable, and Rachmaninoff clothed them in lush orchestral colours. The solo part is brilliant, mirroring the power and expressiveness of the composer’s own magnificent performing skills. He played it himself no fewer than 143 times, and recorded it twice. 

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
1. Moderato
2. Adagio sostenuto
3. Allegro scherzando

Sergei Prokofiev
b. Sontsovka, Ukraine / April 27, 1891; 
d. Moscow, Russia / March 5, 1953

In June 1944, Prokofiev took up residence at a vacation estate, a collective poultry farm, which the Union of Composers operated near Ivanovo, 80 kilometres west of Moscow. His fellow residents included Dmitri Shostakovich, his former teacher Reinhold Glière, Aram Khachaturian and Dmitri Kabalevsky. Far from the bustle and noise of the big city and with all their material needs taken care of, they were free to create expansively and in quiet contentment.

As always, Prokofiev kept to a strict daily schedule. He composed new works between breakfast and lunch, then revised and scored others in the afternoon; all this was broken up by long walks. He created two works between summer and autumn: Piano Sonata No. 8 and Symphony No. 5. The most mature and serious works he had composed to date, they share a large scale, lyricism, epic vision – and the key of B-flat Major.

“In the summer of 1944 I wrote my Fifth Symphony, to which I attach great importance,” he wrote, “firstly because of its thematic material, and secondly because with this work I returned to the genre of the symphony after a break of 16 years. I thought of the Fifth as a work glorifying the human spirit. I wanted to sing of man free and happy, his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul. I cannot say that I chose this theme; it was innate in me and had to be expressed.” 

He conducted the first performance himself, in the Moscow Conservatory, on January 13, 1945. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter recalled the occasion: “When Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. His baton was raised. He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this, something symbolic. It was as if all of us, including Prokofiev, had reached some kind of shared turning point.” The salvos were paying tribute to Soviet soldiers beginning their victory march into Nazi Germany. 

The symphony’s immediate popularity sprang from its representing precisely what Soviet audiences needed: a hopeful vision of better times after six years of horrific conflict. It has maintained its reputation through its superb balance of grandeur, powerful emotions and sparkling wit. In it Prokofiev may be heard to achieve the language – direct and approachable yet still individual – that would satisfy both himself and the conservative bureaucrats who regularly criticized his and other Soviet composers’ music.

The four movements alternate slow and fast tempos. The first generates an impression of optimism, rising to a climax of overwhelming heft and forcefulness. A bustling movement laced with typically biting Prokofiev humour follows. The dark, questioning third movement mirrors the matching section of Shostakovich’s Fifth, which since its debut in 1937 had been the model for Soviet symphonic tragedies. The finale opens in a mood of gentle musing, only to shift to an impudent, carnival-like atmosphere that sweeps the music along joyfully to the celebratory conclusion.

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
1. Andante
2. Allegro marcato
3, Adagio
4. Allegro giocoso



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